Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
In 1967, Patti Smith moved to New York City from South Jersey, and the rest is epic history. There are the photographs, the iconic made-for-record-cover black-and-whites shot by Smith’s lover, soul mate, and co-conspirator in survival, Robert Mapplethorpe. Then there are the photographs taken of them together, both with wild hair and cloaked in homemade amulets, hanging out in the glamorous poverty of the Chelsea Hotel. It is nearly impossible to navigate the social and artistic history of late ’60s and ’70s New York without coming across Smith. She was, as she still is, a poet, an artist, a rock star, and a bit of a shaman. But it is her friendship with Mapplethorpe where her legend begins—and like most beginnings, this one has been romanticized to the point of fantasy. How is it that two such beautifully feral-looking young people with no money or connections, who later would go on to achieve such extreme success—Smith with her music and Mapplethorpe with his photography—found each other? It is a myth of New York City as it once was, a place where misfits magically gravitated toward one another at the chance crossroads of a creative revolution. That’s one way to look at it. But Smith’s new memoir, Just Kids (Ecco)—which traces her relationship with Mapplethorpe from their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods—paints a radically different picture. In this account, the two struggle to pay for food and shelter, looking out for each other and sacrificing everything they have for the purpose of making art. Just Kids portrays their mythic status as the product of willful determination as much as destiny. Smith’s immensely personal storytelling also rectifies certain mistaken notions about the pair, revealing specifically that they were not wild-child drug addicts but dreamers, more human and loving than their cold, isolated stares and sharp, skinny bodies in early photos lead one to believe. Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the late former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career as one of the most shocking and potent art photographers was reaching its apogee (his black-and-whites of gay hustlers, S&M acts, flowers, and children were headed to museum collections and a court trial for obscenity charges). By then Smith had already produced Horses and had risen to international fame. Her book follows Mapplethorpe all the way to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS, but it’s mostly about two kids who held on to each other.
As I began reading Just Kids, Smith hadn’t yet officially agreed to an interview, but I continued to move through it, spending an entire Sunday in my apartment unable to let go of the book. I finally had to put it down to attend a cocktail party at a friend’s house, and when I got there, I saw Patti Smith across the room. I went up to her, and we made a date for the interview. It’s this kind of chance meeting that makes you think there’s some magic left in New York. We met at a café that Smith has been going to since she first moved to the city. She ordered Egyptian chamomile tea, and I ordered an Americano.
Read excerpts from Just Kids at Amazon.com
I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order. I know that he always wanted to do something that no one else had done. That was very important to him.—Patti Smith
PATTI SMITH: That’s what I drink. I’ve already had two.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I can drink an endless amount of coffee. I’m sure one day that will catch up with me.
SMITH: I used to drink like 14 cups a day. I was a pretty speedy person, but I never noticed. Then, when I was pregnant, I had to give up coffee. After that, I cut down to five or six cups. Ever since I hit 60, I drink only two. What I do is I get an Americano and a pot of water and I keep diluting it, because it’s not even the coffee, it’s the habit.
BOLLEN: That’s my problem. I really don’t smoke cigarettes that much except when I write. But when I write, I smoke. It’s bad, but I’m scared that if I break the habit, I won’t be able to write.
SMITH: It’s part of your process. It’s what you have to do. I’ll tell you how to break it. You don’t have to. Like, coffee was part of my process. Now, if I want to go to a café and write and drink coffee for two hours, I just order them. I don’t drink them. A lot is just aesthetic. So you light your cigarette and let it sit there and don’t smoke it.
BOLLEN: Do you think that would work?
SMITH: If you attach anything harmful to the creative process, you have to do that. If you learn nothing else from me, this is a really important lesson. I’ve seen a lot of people go down because they attach a substance to their creative process. A lot of it is purely habitual. They don’t need it, but they think they do, so it becomes entrenched. Like, I can’t go without my coffee. I can go without drinking it, but I can’t go without it nearby. It’s the feeling of how cool I feel with my coffee. Because I don’t feel cool with this tea. [Bollen laughs] You know, there are pictures of me with cigarettes in the ’70s, and everybody thought I smoked. I can’t smoke because I had TB when I was a kid. But I loved the look of smoking—like Bette Davis and Jeanne Moreau. So I would have cigarettes and just light ’em and take a couple puffs, but mostly hold them. Some people said that was hypocritical. But in my world, it wasn’t hypocritical at all. I wasn’t interested in actually smoking them. I just liked holding them to look cool. All right, was it a bad image to show people? I’m happy to let people know I wasn’t really smoking.
BOLLEN: I think it’s almost part of the romance of creating. As an artist, you kind of have to buy into your own romance a bit when you are making work.
SMITH: Yep. Except for me, I haven’t really changed at all since I was 11. I still dress the same. I still have the same manners of study. Like when I was a kid, I wanted to write a poem about Simón Bolívar. I went to the library and read everything I could. I wrote copious notes. I had 40 pages of notes just to write a small poem. So my process hasn’t changed much. The way I dress certainly hasn’t changed. When I was a kid, I wore dungarees and little boatneck shirts and braids. I dressed like that throughout the ’50s, to the horror of my parents and teachers.
BOLLEN: Most people take a long time to find themselves—if they ever do. How did you catch on so early?
SMITH: Because even as a kid, I wanted to be an artist. I also did not want to be trapped in the ’50s idea of gender. I grew up in the ’50s, when the girls wore really bright red lipstick and nail polish, and they smelled like Eau de Paris. Their world just didn’t attract me. I hid in the world of the artist—first the 19th-century artists, then the Beats. And Peter Pan.
BOLLEN: Were you always attracted to New York City?
SMITH: No. As a kid I didn’t really know about New York City. I’m from the Philadelphia area. I came to New York through art, really. I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Guernica. And I wanted to see Nina Simone, so I saved my money and went to see her at the Village Gate. For me, it was a lot of money even if it was just a few dollars. I was making $22 a week working at a factory. So a day in New York was half my week’s pay. I always wanted to be an artist, but I never doubted that I would have to work. Having a job was part of my upbringing.
BOLLEN: That’s what I like about the book. Even with all of the youthful idealism and craziness, so many of the chapters deal with struggling to survive. You basically showed up in New York with no money and had to get a job so you could eat.
SMITH: Yeah. I came from a family that had no money. I didn’t have any idea that I would ever get anything for nothing. So my first thought stepping out on New York soil was to find a job. It took a while, but I got one. I got a few. I lucked out at Scribner Book Store, because it turned out to be the longest-running job of my life.
BOLLEN: People see pictures of you and Robert Mapplethorpe in those early days and romanticize that kind of poverty and struggling. And it is beautiful, no question. But hunger is hunger, no matter what decade you live in. You say in the prologue to the book that Mapplethorpe’s life has been romanticized and damned, but in the end, the real Mapplethorpe lies in his art.
BOLLEN: So if we have his art, why did you feel like you had to write a memoir about him?
SMITH: Well, because I finally finished it. I promised Robert on his deathbed that I would write it. I kept notes for it and wrote other pieces for him, like The Coral Sea [W.W. Norton, 1996]. But it took a while, because the idea of writing a memoir about a departed friend while also having to navigate widowhood was too painful. For a while I had to sort of shelve the promise I made to Robert. In the last 10 years, I finally got back on my feet and got the house in order, literally and figuratively. I was able to start again. I know it seems like a fairly simple book to take 10 years to write, but I had to gather the material and think out the structure. And sometimes, truthfully, it was painful. It made me miss him, you know? Sometimes I’d remember the atmosphere of our youth with such clarity that it hurt. So I’d have to let go of it for months and months.
Robert and I were always ourselves—’til the day he died, we were just exactly as we were when we met. And we loved each other. Everybody wants to define everything. Is it necessary to define love?—Patti Smith
BOLLEN: Do you know why Mapplethorpe wanted you to make that promise? Did he think remembering those early days was important to his work or that people wouldn’t otherwise understand him?
SMITH: Robert absolutely wanted to be remembered. And he died right in the middle of his prime. Believe me, if Robert had lived, we would have seen unimaginable work. He was hardly finished as an artist.
BOLLEN: He was only 42.
SMITH: Yes. I’m 63, and I still think I have yet to do my best work. He had so many ideas. We talked at length about the things he wanted to do. I also know that I was the only one who could write this story. I’m the only one who knew him so intimately. And he also knew me. He knew I would serve him well. Robert and I both loved the magic of things. And of all the things that have been written about him, I never found one that maintained the magic of our relationship or our creative process—and our real struggles, which were very youthful struggles. Whenever I read the biography of a young artist—say, Rimbaud—the biographer sits in such judgment of the young person. They talk about how Rimbaud did all these terrible things, like walking around smoking a pipe upside-down or wearing ragged clothes. He was a teenager! How can a biographer sit in judgment of a teenager? That’s how they dress. Those are the pure years when you’re discovering yourself, when you’re trying things out, when you have the arrogance of adolescence. This is a beautiful time, and it has to be judged in accordance with that. You know, I still remember what it tastes like to be 11, 17, 27. I wanted—if I could—to capture that without irony or sarcasm.
BOLLEN: When you arrived in New York in the late ’60s, you were coming to the city at the peak of an incredibly creative, revolutionary moment. But it wasn’t just luck that you arrived when you did. You and the world you lived in were a big part of what made it that creative, revolutionary moment.
SMITH: We didn’t know. Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you knew all these famous people.” Well, none of us were famous. And even the people who were supposedly famous and had some money didn’t seem much different from the rest of us. I mean, if you sat in a room with people like Janis Joplin, they had arrogance, but they didn’t have bodyguards or paparazzi around them or tons of money. What I’m saying is, that line between us and them was easy to walk across. It was just that the greatness in their work was undeniable, and their arrogance or indulgences were more palatable. Still, they were human beings.
BOLLEN: Did you think those years of struggling—not being able to find places to sleep, crashing in bad hotels—were necessary to become an artist?
SMITH: Oh, yeah. First, almost as a precursor to that, I came from a struggling family. My father was on strike from the factory a lot. My mother did ironing and waitressing. She had four kids who were sickly. There wasn’t always plenty to eat. So struggling was a part of my heritage. But I also read the biographies of struggling artists. I respected Baudelaire, who was starving. Rimbaud almost starved to death. It was part of the deal. I wasn’t afraid. I was a very romantic kid. Struggling and starving were the privileges of being an artist. And, more importantly, it was a time before credit cards. If you didn’t have money in your pocket, you didn’t eat. There were no such things as credit cards. There was a little bit of bartering but no credit.
BOLLEN: Credit cards really did change life as we knew it.
SMITH: I think credit cards are one of the evils of the world. I always knew they would be. I remember when they started, you’d get credit cards for free in the mail, and people would just charge things and say, “Look at this stereo I got.” And I’d say, “How are you going to pay for it?” “Oh, I don’t have to pay for it.”
BOLLEN: I don’t have to pay, because I have a credit card. Credit cards are like Santa Claus.
SMITH: Well, they didn’t pay. They’d move. And a lot of businesses suffered. Also, people’s concept of material things changed very swiftly. When Robert and I were living in the Chelsea, no one had a camera. You had a camera if you were a photographer. Or if you had money. That’s why all documentation today is different.
BOLLEN: Do you think that limited contact with cameras allowed Robert, when your neighbor first lent him her Polaroid, to see photography as some sort of special privilege?
SMITH: Oh, Robert was an artist. I mean, a lot of these things don’t matter with somebody like Robert, because he was a true artist. Some things magnify people or open up areas, but Robert always knew he was an artist. He wasn’t intimidated by technology or the lack of it. He was just more frustrated. He was very frustrated when we were young, because he was a visionary in a very Marcel Duchamp sort of way. He envisioned whole rooms, big installations, things he couldn’t realize because he didn’t have any money. It wasn’t that he had to be introduced to anything. Robert knew about photography. He had taken pictures before, with a 35 mm. But he wasn’t so interested in the darkroom process. He liked the Polaroid because it was fast. Then he was seduced by photography in general—but, again, because of its speed. He could access sculpture through photography. He loved sculpture.
BOLLEN: There is a certain amount of magic in the memoir. You write about your work and events that involve magic. And I think that fits into this rather magical time of the late ’60s and ’70s in New York.
SMITH: I didn’t realize it. But I’ve noticed and tried not to be seduced by the fact that I’ve always had both very good and very bad luck. I never understood why, and it’s continued my whole life. Sometimes I feel like I’m too lucky, and other times I feel like I’ve been dealt a rough hand. But we weren’t particularly self-conscious when we were doing all of those things I wrote about. I didn’t look around and think, Ah, we are in the era. Because, don’t forget, I’m a 19th-century person. I spent a lot of time wishing I had been born in another century. I was always looking backward. And it took me a long time to appreciate the present. Change was always horrifying to me. I always wanted things to stay as they were and never change. But, honestly, I just didn’t think about it, because we were struggling. One time, me, Robert, and Jim Carroll were all living together—three people with promise. But half the time we barely had enough money to eat. A lot of our preocupation was with how to pay the rent and get our next meal, or a little nickel bag of pot, or supplies to do a drawing. Our preoccupations were so practical. You didn’t have a lot of cash unless you stole it.
BOLLEN: It was more about survival.
SMITH: Yeah, it’s different now. Today, people are very self-conscious about fame and fortune and where they are at. They can almost gauge it as it’s happening, by how many hits they have on their websites. But when I talk about the past, I’m not talking about it like, “Oh, the good old days.” It was just the way it was. I could mourn the way things are. I could mourn the birth of the credit card, but I also know that because of the credit card, a lot of people are able to do their work. If Robert had had a credit card, he could have done those installations. So there’s good and evil attached. I always think that eventually true artists will be heard. Sometimes not in their own time. Look at William Blake. He was completely drowned out by the Industrial Revolution. His voice was not heard in his own time because everything became very material. He was churning out his hand-colored books while down the road there was a mill churning out thousands of books at a time. Almost overnight, William Blake was rendered obsolete. And today an artist like myself could be rendered obsolete, except I refuse. I just do my work. Good artists will rise up. They will be found.
To me, being hungry and messy and being free to live in a mess and not have to worry if I bathed for a week, that was enough. But a lot of these people kept pushing, pushing, pushing.—Patti Smith
BOLLEN: But maybe New York isn’t the place it was for artists. Maybe it’s not the right city for the strugglers and drifters anymore.
SMITH: Oh, yes. It’s very unfair to young struggling people. When I came to New York in the late ’60s, you could find an apartment for $50 or $60 a month. You could get a job in a bookstore or be a waitress and still live as an artist. You could have raw space. That’s been rendered impossible. I mean, my band lost its practice space and had to move out of town. They’re all fancy galleries. CBGB is now a fancy clothing store. The Bowery used to be home to winos, William Burroughs, and punk rockers. Now it’s a whole other scene. That’s part of New York’s tragedy and beauty. It’s a city of continual reinvention and transformation. I think the way things are going now is good for commerce, bad for art. Bad for the common man. [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg does not serve the common man. He serves the image of the city as a new shopping center. A place to get great meals. Little parks that make no sense. Places like Union Square, as if we were in Paris. We’re not Paris. We’re New York City. It’s a gritty city. It’s a place where you have all races and all walks of life, and that has always been its beauty. It’s the city of immigrants. It’s the city where you can start at the bottom. I feel the Bloomberg administration has reinvented the city as the new hip suburbia. It’s a tourist city. It’s really safe for tourists. I guess I liked it when it was a little less safe. Or I liked it when it was safer for artists. Now it’s unsafe for artists. I’m not saying this for myself. I’m saying this for the future of creative communities. Because, one day, all the people who have driven out the artists and have only these fancy condos left are going to turn around and say, “Why do I live here? There’s nothing happening!”
BOLLEN: What’s very moving throughout the book is how you and Robert took care of each other. And it’s rare that in a relationship between two young people, you both became so successful. Usually the support system eventually becomes unbalanced, and one rises while the other holds on. Would either of you have made the work you did without each other?
SMITH: Robert was a great artist, and he would have found a way, and I would’ve done whatever I do. But I know what we gave each other. We gave each other what the other didn’t have. I was very sturdy and practical in my own way. So I gave him a practical support system and also unconditional belief. He already had that in himself, but it was nice to have someone conspire with him. I had a lot of bravado, and I was a good survivor. But I can’t say that I believed in myself as an artist with the full intensity that he believed in his own self. He gave me that. I certainly don’t count myself as any reason why Robert did great work. I just know that in those formative years . . . I know I kept him going.
BOLLEN: You were first lovers and then close friends and collaborators. You were something of a constant when Mapplethorpe was going though so much self-reinvention and self-discovery. The way you describe it in the memoir, it almost seems like it was ripping him apart.
SMITH: I was always a constant because Robert had a lot of duality. Part of it was his Catholicism andhow he was brought up—good versus evil, being straight versus being homosexual. They werebattling in him until he got to a point where these things were no longer a battle. They were just all of the things that he was. Robert and I were alwaysourselves—’til the day he died, we were just exactly as we were when we met. And we loved each other. Everybody wants to define everything. Is it
necessary to define love? We just loved each other.
BOLLEN: He shot really beautiful photos of you.
SMITH: I liked being photographed back then. I was tall and skinny, and I used to dream about being a model. But I was too weird. I mean, my look back then was too weird for modeling. But I never felt self-conscious in front of a camera, so we didn’t have to deal with that. The rest was just me and him. I don’t even remember a camera. It’s like, when Robert took pictures, I could see his face. When I remember it, I never see a camera there. I always see his eyes squint, the way he looked at me, or the way he checked to make sure everything was right. He knew what he wanted. Robert was not an accidental photographer. He didn’t shoot and then find something cool in the images later. He knew what he wanted, got it, and that was it.
BOLLEN: Were you surprised when the photography veered into homosexual themes and S&M?
SMITH: It wasn’t even homosexual. It was S&M. For me, S&M is its own world. You can’t call it homosexual. It’s so specialized. But, yeah, I was really surprised. I was shocked and frightened, because the pictures were frightening. Robert did shocking work. Those pictures should always be shocking. I shudder to think people could get used to seeing bloody testicles on a wooden board. But I was worried about him getting hurt or killed or something, because it was a world that I didn’t know anything about.
BOLLEN: You also say that he wasn’t the kind of person who would shoot voyeuristically. He would get personally involved.
SMITH: I know that if he was taking pictures, he would have to involve himself somehow. He was too honest. I didn’t ask him about all that. It was too much for me. I still don’t know anything about what Robert really did in the ’80s. We never talked about it, and I never read anything, because it didn’t involve me. I never stood in judgment of Robert. I just couldn’t involve myself in all the things that he did. I could only support him as an artist and as a person who loved him.
BOLLEN: By the late ’70s, before you moved to Detroit, your career had already started to move in a very different orbit. Do you think that split between you and Robert geographically was necessary?
SMITH: No. Without sounding conceited, I was at the height of my fame. I was—in Europe, at least—becoming a really big rock ’n’ roll star. I was performing before 80,000 people, as big an audience as one could imagine. It had nothing to do with Robert. It was just that I had found the person I loved, and that was how we decided to conduct our lives. Fred [Smith] had been really famous as a young man, in the MC5. And then he got hurt by fame, crushed by it. We just agreed to put all that behind us and start over again as human beings and find out what it meant to be human.
BOLLEN: Did you need to leave New York to do that?
SMITH: Well, to be with Fred, I had to. He lived in Detroit. So I deferred to him. I didn’t want to leave New York. I loved New York. It was difficult to leave. It was difficult to leave Robert and my band. None of that was easy. But as fate turned out, those 16 years were the only years I was ever gonna spend with Fred. So I made the right decision. They weren’t years, in the end, that I had a choice to play with.
BOLLEN: You mention at one point in the book, when you are sitting around the back room at Max’s Kansas City, that none of the people at the table would die in the Vietnam War, but most of them would die in the plagues of the coming decades. It obviously must have been hard when writing this book to look back at all of the people that once were here but now are gone.
SMITH: I can look at that table and see everybody there and see only two survivors in all of those people who were iconic of those times. Jackie Curtis, Andrea Feldman, Candy Darling, Andy Warhol—all of these people are gone. All the players—even the kings and queens—Halston, all of them.
BOLLEN: Why did the brilliant eccentrics of that period have such a high mortality rate?
SMITH: Well, I can’t say I felt any less eccentric than anybody else. I just think that some people were more attracted to the lifestyle around art. To me, being hungry and messy and being free to live in a mess and not have to worry if I bathed for a week, that was enough. But a lot of these people kept pushing, pushing, pushing—doing drugs, indulging in very intense promiscuity, taking hormonal drugs to change their gender. There were all kinds of things—speed, mixing pills. I’ve often thought about what made me different than a lot of these people. Maybe it’s the fact that even though I had a very sickly childhood, I had a happy childhood. I was well loved. A lot of these people were not loved early in their lives. I’m not a psychiatrist, nor am I trying to be. I’m just saying that I lived in the same environment as these people. But also, I hated peer pressure. I suffered it my whole life, and I refused when I came to New York to get reverse peer pressure. I hated when I was in high school and people said I had to drink beer in a field to be cool. I would be the lookout, but I didn’t want beer. It didn’t attract me, and I hated that pressure. When I went to New York, I hated the pressure of “Oh, if you don’t smoke pot, you’re a narc.” That paranoiac peer pressure was rampant in those days. There was a lot of peer pressure to take drugs.
The question for me wasn’t if art got us. The question was, ‘Do we regret that?’ I know art got us, because if art gets you, you never can be normal. You can never enjoy. You can’t go anywhere without trying to transform it.—Patti Smith
BOLLEN: I have always suspected that for all of the freedom going on in Warhol’s circle, it was one big pool of peer pressure.
SMITH: It was heavy. I wasn’t a part of that. That was too intense for me. It was very brutal—a brutal scene. But so was the hippie scene. That was the thing—Robert was like a refuge for me, because Robert knew that I didn’t need that stuff. For some reason my mind expanded on its own, and he understood that.
BOLLEN: To be honest, one thing that really surprised me about the book is that I figured that you did a lot of drugs at that time. I just assumed drugs were a big part of you and Mapplethorpe’s life in the days of the Chelsea Hotel. I was waiting for the chapter where it would go really deep into drug darkness. But you were a very sober person.
SMITH: I have a whole different view of drugs. When the drug culture was prevalent, I was appalled by it. To me, drugs were quite sacred. I had a romantic view of drugs. They were for artists and poets and American Indians and jazz musicians. I never believed in drugs as a recreational substance. No matter what people say or what exaggerated stories they tell, I could count on my hand the number of times I drank too much tequila with Sam [Shepard] or something. But it was also because of my body. I had so many illnesses in my youth. My body actually couldn’t take substance abuse. I nearly died of illnesses three different times before I was 20, and the last thing I wanted to do, after my parents went broke taking care of me, was to go and throw it away. I’m also too ambitious. I wanted to do something great, and you can’t do anything great if you don’t have mental clarity. Robert also didn’t live the crazy druggy lifestyle in the ’70s. I mean, he took acid sometimes. But we had no money. Buying a nickel bag of pot was a big thing for Robert. If he smoked a joint every day, it was like some skinny little joint. Also, a person who was really fucked up on drugs and couldn’t handle it actually repelled him. If someone came to visit us who had shot a bunch of heroin or was really fucked up, he didn’t like that. He didn’t like to see people lose control. I only saw Robert lose control on a substance once in my life. I never saw him drunk. Sometimes on New Year’s Eve, he’d have a couple glasses of champagne. But Robert was very much in control of himself. What he did later in life or beyond our sphere I can’t speak of, but I knew him for a long time as a person who had control of himself.
BOLLEN: Maybe some of his graphic sexual portraits were his way of gaining control over the situation.
SMITH: Robert liked to control situations. Robert was an artist. I’m not an analytical person. I’ve tried to analyze a few things sitting here, but in reality, I spend most
of my time dreaming up work for magic scenarios.
BOLLEN: Do you have a lot of your early drawings and work from that period?
SMITH: I have some. A lot of them were destroyed when we were robbed. I have certain things. I have Robert’s letters to me. I have precious things. I don’t have any photographs. We were so communal, I always imagined what was his was mine. Even when we were apart, I always knew that if I needed or wanted something, I just had to ask him. I never expected him to die so young.
BOLLEN: I was thinking about that line you remember him asking you when he was really sick. It’s devastating. He asked you if it was the art that did this.
SMITH: “Did art get us?”
BOLLEN: Yes, that’s it. And I wondered if art kind of did. At least for him. It’s not really possible to answer that question.
SMITH: I can’t answer that. I mean, I know it got me. The question for me wasn’t if art got us. The question was, “Do we regret that?” I know art got us, because if art gets you, you never can be normal. You can never enjoy. You can’t go anywhere without trying to transform it, you know? You go into church to pray, and you start writing a story about being in a church praying. You’re always observing what you do. I noticed that when I was young going to parties. I could never lose myself in a party unless I was on the dance floor because I was always observing—observing or creating a mental scenario. That’s why performing is probably the truest thing I do socially, because everything is natural. There’s nothing fake in the way that my band performs. We’re always in the moment, communicating with people. I’m not the greatest in social situations. But onstage, my whole reason for being there is to serve, so I’m giving everything of myself that I know how.
BOLLEN: There are a lot of misunderstandings about both you and Mapplethorpe and who you were. Maybe this will clear some of that up.
SMITH: Sometimes those misunderstandings came just because of the way I looked: I was skinny, wiry, speedy; I had a high metabolism rate, tons of energy. If I had taken speed, I would’ve had a heart attack. I was already moving at 78 rpm. But you know, I just wanted to be myself. That’s all I ever wanted, just to be myself. I don’t like people telling me how to dress, how to comb my hair. I didn’t set out to hurt anybody’s feelings, or to shock parents or anything like that. But you know, sometimes we make choices that seem to bother everybody but ourselves.
BOLLEN: Do you think Mapplethorpe wanted to be himself? Is that what he was looking for?
SMITH: Robert had different goals. He came from a different upbringing. His upbringing was Catholic, middle class, precise, military, well ordered, spanking clean. I came from a very chaotic household. I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to reorder, to reinvent, and to create a new order. I know that he always wanted to do something that no one else had done. That was very important to him. I was a little different. I always wanted to do what somebody else had already done—I wanted to write the next Peter Pan, the next Alice in Wonderland. I loved history, and I wanted to be a part of it. Robert wanted to break from history.
BOLLEN: You told me earlier that Just Kids isn’t a book about the birth of punk rock. You didn’t want to do that book.
SMITH: I don’t think I’m qualified to write that kind of book. We did our work unconsciously and punk rock evolved around what we were doing. Lenny Kaye and I started working together in 1971. We were sort of a bridge from our historical roots and the great masters. We were a bridge from Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan and Bo Diddley and all the people in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Lenny Kaye and I saw the whole history of rock ’n’ roll from the time we were born. I was just a child when Little Richard came out with his songs; Elvis Presley was adored by my babysitters. The evolution of rock ’n’ roll was within us. New generations come less fettered with that evolution. They’re touched by it, but it’s not necessarily in their blood. So they’re going to do things that are more revolutionary. The whole history of rock ’n’ roll is sacred. Sometimes in my life I’ve been given too much credit, and sometimes I’ve been ignored, but to me it doesn’t matter. I know what we did, and I know what we’re doing, and the most important thing is the maintenance of the cultural voice. Even now, it’s an opportunity to have a universal voice because everybody, all over the world, loves rock ’n’ roll. They speak rock ’n’ roll, whatever rock ’n’ roll is now, whatever you want to call it, whatever label you want to put on it. It’s the new language, the new universal language. Jimi Hendrix knew that. The Rolling Stones knew that. We knew that. People of the future will know that. What they do with it is up to them.
BOLLEN: Do you have great hopes for the young artists of the future?
SMITH: There are powerful possibilities, and I think they’re gonna do splendid. If you think on a grand scale, with our legacy, with what we had to work with, the history of poetry and art and rock ’n’ roll, the new generations have that in their hands right now. And how they can parlay that is extraordinary. It’s a dark period now because everyone is beguiled by fame. We have these horrible reality shows like American Idol, which is pop art at its basest, and it’s probably something that Andy Warhol, in his genius, anticipated. But the artist has to struggle beneath that canopy, just as we struggled beneath a different canopy—though ours wasn’t as overwhelming. I think that true artists just have to keep doing their work, keep struggling, and keep hold of their vision. Because being a true artist is its own reward. If that’s what you are, then you are always that. You could be locked away in a prison with no way at all to communicate what’s in there, but you’re still an artist. The imagination and the ability to transform is what makes one an artist. So young artists who feel overwhelmed by everything have to almost downscale. They have to go all the way to this kernel and believe in themselves, and that’s what Robert gave me. He believed in that kernel I had, you know, with absolute unconditional belief. And if you believe it, you’ll have that your whole life, through the worst times. I wrote this book because I promised Robert I would. But I also wrote this book in hopes that maybe it would somehow inspire. It’s the same reason I made Horses.
BOLLEN: Why did you make Horses?
SMITH: We made Horses to inspire people who, like us, felt disenfranchised, unloved, disconnected. I wrote “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” when I was 20 or 21 riding the subway to Scribner—not because I didn’t believe in Jesus or didn’t feel that he was a great revolutionary. It was about my disconnection with the church and my dissatisfaction with the rules of church, which was created by man. And Jesus felt the same thing. That’s why he did what he did. He was tearing down the old guard. I’m a pretty positive person, you know? I was trying to infuse the record with a certain positivity and also link us to our history. It was saluting history and also the future. This book I wrote is like Horses. It’s about a time and about a girl and a boy who were there when Horses was being built and committed. So I suppose it’s seeking to find the people that need it.
Christopher Bollen is Interview’s Editor at Large.